Saturday, April 13, 2013

Hand Delivery to Claude Lanzmann

Three weeks ago my best friend from NYC came to visit me for a week. When she was getting ready to leave, she gave me the book she had read on the plane coming to Israel, and asked if I had a book for her to read on the flight going back. I knew what I wanted her to read, but I had read a borrowed copy, so I went down to my local Steimatzky book store and bought "Memories After My Death" by Yair Lapid, written in the voice of his father Tommy Lapid.

The salesman reminded me that I could buy a second book at half-price. He first showed me "The Hare With Amber Eyes" which I had already read and enjoyed. "Show me something just as good," I said. He pulled out a book and his eyes lit up: "This one is really amazing. You must read it." It was a translation into English of Claude Lanzmann's memoirs, "The Patagonian Hare." I thought, well it has "hare" in the title, so that's a good sign.

Lanzmann was born in 1925, one year before my oldest brother, so I felt a kind of personal connection to his time, although his experience in WWII was in the French Resistance, whereas mine was in pins on a world map on our dining room wall in Forest Hills, Queens, NY.

I started to read the book during Passover week. By the time I got to the end of the memoirs, which covers the making of the movie "Shoah," I couldn't put the book down and I finished reading it on April 5. That night I had a dream in which I spoke French. The following morning I sat down and wrote Lanzmann a letter.

xxxxxx Street
Tel Aviv, Israel
April 6, 2013
Dear Mr. Lanzmann, 
I've just finished reading "The Patagonian Hare" (English translation). I was born in NYC in 1937, and after having studied French in school, participated in a student program living with a French family in Valenciennes for the summer of 1956. I knew I was becoming fluent that summer when I began to dream in French. Last night, 56 years later, after finishing your book and watching the first hour of Shoah for the first time - in my Tel Aviv apartment - I dreamed in French again. 
To be honest, and your memoir imposes this obligation on me, I don't think I could ever bear to meet you in person. The persistence and determination you exhibit in your book frightens me, but it is also a little bit thrilling. Since this meeting is  unlikely in this world, it doesn't stop me from daring to write how much your life's work has affected me. Or rather, how much the events that inspired your life's work also affected my life, leaving aside issues of personality. 
My oldest brother (z''l) was born a year after you were, and joined the US Navy in 1943. Because of that, my childhood in peaceful Forest Hills, NY, was preoccupied with WWII. The Germans and the Japanese were The Enemy, and my six-year-old self was filled with pride and apprehension to have sacrificed my precious brother to fighting The Enemy. What a let-down it was when he returned home, alive, only to depart once more for university studies in a faraway location. I'm wondering if the contrast between my physical comfort and my psychological discomfort in those tender years of 1943-1946 contributed to my decision to make aliyah in 1988, perhaps as a way to reconcile that conflict? 
In any case, reading your book this year, together with the coincidence of Yom HaShoah with my 76th birthday, inspired me to try to watch Shoah. Initially I thought I would only be able to watch it in a theater here in Tel Aviv, because I thought I needed the presence of a congregation. In the end, a wonderful thing happened to make it possible for me to watch it alone (only the first hour so far): my Tel Aviv friend's Phillippino caregiver became a father last month, and his wife and new baby were together at my friend's apartment the other day while I was visiting. I decided to knit the new little boy a sweater; knitting that sweater while watching Shoah gives me the encouragement I need. Like the barber Avraham Bomba, I need to do something with my hands to be able to face history. 
I wish you many years of good health and honors, which you have earned. 

Dorothy Kushner
So quickly did the letter pour out of me that I didn't even think about sending it, just getting the words down. When it was finished I thought I'd google Claude Lanzmann to see whether I could email it to him. That's when I saw that he was in Israel for Yom Hashoah, which started the following day (my birthday). He was going to be at a free screening of the film Shoah at the Jerusalem Cinematique at 6:45PM. Even though it was free, the Cinemateque wanted reservations, so I even decided to brave the rigors of their Hebrew ticket-ordering site to reserve a seat. I succeeded (a first!) so I printed out my reservation and the letter.

At my birthday lunch, I told my friends that I was planning to the Jerusalem Cinemateque to see Lanzmann and the first half of Shoah, and invited anyone who wanted to join me. One friend did, and we drove to Jerusalem together when lunch ended. She didn't have a reservation, but was ready to take a chance on getting a seat. We arrived very early, and she was able to get a ticket. While she went into the theater to save us seats together, I waited in the lobby next to the security guard to be sure to catch Lanzmann when he arrived, and at 6:30 I saw him approaching the entrance. I knew what he looked like thanks to Google Images. I tried to address him in French, but Hebrew came out. He took the letter and put it in his jacket pocket. Mission accomplished.

I just finished watching the second half of the movie on YouTube, taking it in daily doses of one hour. It is a true monument. I am in awe. My daughter was right when she said, "You sure know how to celebrate, Mom!"

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